By Shawn Wood
For The Daily Item
MECHNICSBURG — Any hopes for Jason Meyers to repeat as World of Outlaws champion may depend on how well the Clovis, Calif., driver fares this weekend in the 49th running of the National Open for 410 sprint cars starting tonight at Williams Grove Speedway.
Saturday's 40-lap, $50,000-to-win feature, marks the final appearance of the Outlaws at the Grove this year.
The inaugural event was run in 1963 and was won by Gordon Johncock of Hastings, Mich., who would go on to win the 1973 and 1982 Indianapolis 500s.
Steve Kinser and Donny Schatz are the only four-time winners of the National Open.
Other active drivers who have won the National Open and are expected to enter include current Williams Grove points leader Lance Dewease, who owns three victories; Stevie Smith and defending champion Sammy Swindell, who have won the race twice; and Don Kreitz, Jr., Doug Esh, Cody Darrah and Greg Hodnett, who are also past winners.
Among the list of Pennsylvania sprint car drivers who have not won the event are the late Ray Tilley, Mitch Smith and Jan Opperman. Among the active drivers looking for their first Open victory are Fred Rahmer and Keith Kauffman.
Qualifying begins both nights at 7:30.
Meyers scored his first-ever Grove win on July 23, snapping a long winning streak by the Pennsylvania Posse drivers. The Grove is a track that has not been too kind to him.
He finished 19th on July 22 and eighth on May 13. After the May 13 race, he was fifth in the WoO points, 107 behind Joey Saldana.
With seven races left, counting tonight, Meyers has a 147-point lead over four-time champion Donny Schatz and a 165-point lead over 20-time champion Steve Kinser.
"The Grove is always a tough place to go into and we've been really good with the race car lately," he said. "We're looking forward to coming in and having a chance to win the National Open."
Meyers was leading last year's Open when a red flag occurred and changed the complexion of the race.
"We made a mistake on the open red last year and at the end of the race, we didn't have the best car," he noted. "We're looking for redemption. We've worked really hard for this weekend."
Meyers noted the team has been playing catch-up since the first race of the year.
"We struggled with a few different things this year," he said. "Our program was not near where it needed to be. The turning point was the first race of the year when we realized that we were behind. We've continued to progress forward and by the middle of the summer, we started to hit our stride. It shows the depth of the team and that we have never given up."
Meyers won his fifth race of the year at Lernerville Speedway on Sept. 24. The Grove victory was the only one of his five that has occurred on a half-mile. He has 35 top-fives, 49 top-10s and 10 fast times to date.
Other Grove Outlaws winners this year include Daryn Pittman on May 13 and Hodnett on July 22.
"Jason hasn't had the best of luck at Williams Grove," Brad Doty, former WoO driver and TV analyst said. "It's so tough to make the show (at Williams Grove). It's a place that is so unique and the Posse have had the upper hand as of late. It's a place where you can lose some points."
After seventh-and ninth-place-finishes at the Grove on July 22 and 23 respectively, Lucas Wolfe of Mechanicsburg, has had a pretty good second half of the year.
He reeled off four-straight top-fives in early July and won the World Challenge 20 (a non-points race) at Knoxville. He finished second at Bloomington (Ind.), third at Black Hills Speedway (S.D.) and third at Castrol Raceway in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. He had fallen to 11th in the standings but has rebounded to seventh.
"We got some things changed around," he said of the second-half surge. "We still weren't as good as we needed to be and we were qualifying better to make the dashes and that's critical."
A U-Joint broke on Wolfe's car on his qualifying night at Knoxville.
"I was happy with the speed we had at Knoxville," he said. "We were in a good spot, it was just bad timing with the parts failure. I thought we were extremely competitive and really fast."
Wolfe qualified 10th and 13th, respectively, at the Grove back in July.
"We've struggled in qualifying at the Grove and Charlotte and that's what we're focusing on that will make or break this year," he said.
"He (Lucas) has been so close to his first WoO win so many times, it's just a matter of time before he gets that first win," Doty said. "It will test (a driver) running with the World of Outlaws. You'll lose a lot more than you will win."
And nowhere is that test harder for the Outlaws than facing the Posse at Williams Grove.